Life & Culture

Tzedakah: a concept that changed the world

Jews pioneered a revolutionary approach to charitable giving, says Paul Vallely whose new book traces the history of philanthropy


When I make a gift, I give a part of myself. So said the great anthropologist Marcel Mauss, who believed all gifts in some way involved sacrifice on the part of the giver. But there came a point in history where people stopped offering sacrifices as burnt offerings to the gods and instead made their offerings in the form of gifts to the poor.

In Judaism, that shift came about in the year 70 CE, when the Romans, under the Emperor Titus, destroyed the Second Temple. The structure on which Judaism had been predicated for at least 1,000 years came to an end. “But Judaism didn’t miss a beat,” says Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. “It found three major substitutes for sacrifice... prayer, charity and hospitality. When you invited the stranger into your house, he or she had a meal at your table, and in Hebrew the words for ‘altar’ and ‘table’ are very similar. The Rabbis said that when the altar was destroyed, the table became the altar.”

Philanthropy from early on encompassed two radically different traditions. The word has its origins in Ancient Greece, where the early laws of Athens were described as “philanthropic and democratic”, suggesting that it was philanthropy which made humankind capable of self-government. The word was first used as a noun by Socrates. His pupil Plato records the father of classical thought as insisting that he educated others, without charge, out of philanthrôpía — “friendship for humankind”.

But the term was soon extended into wider areas. Xenophon, another student of Socrates, describes Cyrus the Great, the first emperor of Persia, then the biggest empire the world had ever seen, as having a “supremely philanthropic soul” because his actions were motivated by pity, sympathy, affection and care. But Cyrus, he notes, had mixed motives because his philanthropy was also intended to win him honour and prevent his subjects from insurrection. The Romans, too, saw philanthropy as a political investment to buy the favour of the masses by distributing salt and olive oil, paying barbers to give free haircuts to the plebeians, and building baths, aqueducts, temples and roads on which the donors had their names inscribed with the legend de sua pecuna fecit — built with his own money.

So in the Graeco-Roman world philanthropy was about education and the arts. It was about developing the good character of the donor. But it was also about honour, prestige, status and reputation, and maintaining the social order. There was one key thing it was not about. It was not about the recipients. It was not about kindness or a duty of common humanity. It was about the rich rather than the poor.

Judaism profoundly changed the direction of philanthropy, a change later consolidated by both Christianity and Islam — the other faiths which rejected the worship of many gods in favour of one. Judaism constituted a radical democratisation of ancient culture, summed up in the first book of the Torah where Adam and Eve, the Everyman and Everywoman, are seen as created in the image of God.

“We often miss how revolutionary this was,” says Rabbi Sacks. “That’s incendiary in a culture where only emperors and other rulers were thought to be made in the image of God. Then Judaism suddenly comes along and says ‘Everyone is in the image of God’. That ultimately leads to a profoundly anti-hierarchical understanding of society.” Moreover it means that “there has to be a moral bond between the people who have more than they need and the people who have less than they need.”

Something else was new. Judaism saw this one God as the epitome of generosity. The stranger, the widow, and the orphan were singled out as being deserving of charity. God was spoken of as the God of the Poor, a phrase never applied to any Greek or Roman god. In this the foundation for Jewish charity lies. In giving alms to the needy, the donor imitates God. That means giving more than food or money; donors are required also to share their compassion and empathy. This is far beyond the understanding in the Graeco-Roman world of the few thinkers, such as the Stoics, who expressed sympathetic feelings towards the poor. Giving was no longer simply about social relationships, it was a human echo of God’s generosity towards humankind. It injected into philanthropy the idea that both those who gave and those who received were bound together in a relationship which was in some ways reciprocal.

Yet the God of the Torah is more than the epitome of generosity. He is a God of justice and righteous judgement. “The Hebrew word tzedakah is untranslatable because it means both charity and justice,” explains Rabbi Sacks. “Those two words repel one another in English because if I give you £100 because I owe you £100, that’s justice. But if I give you £100 because I think you need £100, that’s charity. It’s either one or the other, but not both. Whereas in Hebrew, tzedakah means both justice and charity. There’s no word for just charity in Hebrew. Giving is something you have to do.” Almsgiving is giving to the poor that which is rightly due to them. It is not a matter of charity but of economic and social justice. For the Greeks and Romans, philanthrôpía was always a voluntary activity among the elite; by contrast, tzedakah is a religious obligation which falls, proportionally, on both the rich and those with smaller incomes.

It is this awareness of justice, suggests Marcel Mauss, that transforms gift-giving into a concern for the poor. The “ancient gift morality” is elevated to become “a principle of justice”. When a society comes upon this realisation, he writes, “the gods and the spirits accept that the share of wealth and happiness that has been offered to them, and had been hitherto destroyed in useless sacrifices, should serve the poor and children”. This, Mauss observes, “is the moral history of the Semites”. Where Graeco-Roman philanthropy was about society, Jewish philanthropy is about community. Social harmony is an essential, which is why the Jewish word for peace, shalom, goes beyond an absence of conflict and encompasses health, well-being, prosperity, harmony and justice. Judaism sets out to create a community in which the fortunate and the less fortunate can live in harmony together.

It is, therefore, perhaps no coincidence that throughout the history of philanthropy Jews have been consistently generous givers, and disproportionately so. A survey in Britain in 2019 showed that 93 per cent of British Jews gave to charity compared with 57 per cent of the rest of the population. In the Sunday Times Giving List in 2014, more than 12 per cent of the most charitable givers were Jewish, though Jews constitute less than half of one per cent of the UK population according to the last census. Globally a large percentage of those who have signed the billionaires’ Giving Pledge, launched by Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, are Jewish. And religious Jews give more than secular Jews.

My new book, Philanthropy – from Aristotle to Zuckerberg, traces the thread of Jewish giving as it weaves through the general history of philanthropy. Sometimes Jewish communities fall into line with the trends set by wider society. The book records how the elders of the Jews of Avignon in 1558 joined in the move of Christian communities to shift the burden of responsibility from individuals to the civic authorities. In Napoleonic France the attitudes of the Jewish community to the poor changed to reflect the shift in attitudes which took place in Christian circles after the Enlightenment. In 19th century Germany, Jewish newspapers were “filled with hostile depictions of the Jewish poor as cheeky beggars and con artists — a “cancer”... that requires radical treatment,” as one correspondent alarmingly put it, reflecting a split between Orthodox and progressive Jews which mirrored splits among the Christian majority.

But at other times Jews were in the vanguard of change. The book tells the story of the discovery of the 300,000 documents which two Scottish lady adventurers found hidden in the Cairo Geniza which covered the 250 years between 1000 and 1250. Among the papers were a number written by the greatest of the mediaeval Jewish sages, Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon. The great contribution of Maimonides to the history of philanthropy is his hierarchy of Eight Levels of Giving, also known as Rambam’s Ladder. It considers reluctance, proportion, solicitation, shame, boundaries, corruption, anonymity and responsibility in giving. The highest rung of the ladder is occupied by “a person who supports a Jew who has fallen into poverty” by “entering into partnership with him, or finding him work” which allows the recipient to become self-sufficient.

Another pioneer covered in the book is the most prominent Jewish philanthropist of the Victorian era. Frederic David Mocatta — recalling that his own family had arrived in England from the Continent seven generations before — stood out against those Jewish leaders who hesitated to help the great influx of Jewish refugees fleeing persecution in Eastern Europe for fear it might feed a mood of public inhospitability and provoke the British government into imposing a limit on these desperate incomers. Mocatta demonstrated great personal generosity donating to hospitals, schools and housing projects for the working poor of not just the Jewish community but also for the poor of the general population.

That is an impulse which has become integral to the approach of Jewish philanthropists ever since. More than three-quarters of the donations of the Jewish billionaires who have signed the Giving Pledge go to non-Jewish causes. One of today’s leading Jewish philanthropists, Sir Trevor Pears, recalls how he is often asked: “What percentage of your family foundation’s expenditure goes to Jewish causes?”. He replies: “Every penny goes to Jewish causes, because being Jewish means to be involved in the world.”


Philanthropy – from Aristotle to Zuckerberg by Paul Vallely is published by Bloomsbury at £30


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